Is Sportswriting Dead?

Earlier this week FoxSports.com announced that henceforth the site would only feature videos. Writers on the Fox Sports site are now out looking for jobs at the same time ESPN, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and other large site writers are also out looking for jobs. How does this keep happening? The simple truth is this — online sportswriting is a broken business.

I don’t blame the large companies for replacing writers because from a purely business perspective it doesn’t make sense to hire writers unless those writers are going to be writing twenty articles a day all aggregating a paragraph of news from the few original voices left online.

Writers, no matter how talented, quite simply, don’t pay for themselves in the modern online marketplace. And if a site as big as Fox is making the decision not to employ a single writer — which effectively ends the site, because no one is clamoring for more unoriginal videos of TV opinions put online — why won’t other bigger, less successful companies be making the same decision going forward?

With that in mind, rather than write a mailbag today, I’m going to give you my thoughts on the online sportswriting business.

So here we go.

1. Online ad buying is broken. 

At Outkick I will only sell ads directly to companies.

Why?

Because I believe programmatic ad buying is a fundamentally broken system predicated on number of exposures as opposed to the quality of the exposure. And the rates are total and complete shit. Advertisers have been getting reports that showed their content was viewed by (insert huge number here) and they’ve been sold an absolute bill of goods, that number of impressions means they’re getting quality impressions.

I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true.

That’s why I loved the recent realization of several companies that their ads were appearing before ISIS recruitment videos.

Seriously, ISIS recruitment videos!

It was amazing.

The same companies that won’t buy an ad on a TV show with a curse word on it were subsidizing terrorism. Welcome to online ad buying. But I don’t blame the companies, this is a symptom of a larger problem — when there are billions of page views being bought on any given day, it’s impossible for companies to track every place their ads are showing.

Our audience at Outkick’s not massive compared to the YouTubes of the world, but when I give a link to my guys at SeatGeek and tell you to download their app, go to the settings tab, and enter the promo code “Outkick” for $20 off your first ticket purchase, it’s impossible for you to miss that.

We have an engaged readership of millions of people in any given month and I have a direct relationship with every single one of my advertisers. Are we producing a billion page views? Nope, not even close. But we’re delivering content to an audience that loves Outkick every single day.

Advertisers should pay a premium for that ad like the one I just gave SeatGeek.

Instead most advertisers have been sold the idea that quantity of ads matters more than quality. A big reason writing is dying on the Internet is because advertisers are voting with their wallets, and aren’t valuing the right content.

That’s especially the case when…

2. Site traffic is frequently a sham. 

When I worked at FanHouse.com almost all of FanHouse’s traffic came from the front page of AOL.com. You would be absolutely astounded by how many people still started their day on AOL.com and would click on the sports articles there. If you go there today and check it out, you’ll see several sports stories in their slideshow. I haven’t seen the traffic in several years, but I’ll bet you that hundreds of thousands of people still read every article that goes up there because of the prominent placement.

That’s not organic growth or people reading a writer because they love or hate his or her opinions, it’s simply people clicking on a link on a page with substantial traffic. It’s site traffic based on who controls the distribution channels.

When FanHouse shut down and all of us lost our jobs in 2011 — yep, I was one of the first writers to be fired online — Sporting News bought that traffic and suddenly Sporting News had millions more pageviews. But do you know how Sporting News got those pageviews? By paying millions of dollars for the placement on the front page of AOL.com. They bought the pageviews and then sold them to advertisers for a bit more than they were paying for the pageviews. It was all a gigantic shell game.

AOL faced this business decision — why employ a hundred people to produce content for our homepage when we can get paid by another company and not have to employ a single person?

From a business perspective, it’s hard to dispute that decision.

But when I started Outkick six years ago I wanted to avoid ever being that easily replaced — I was going to own and control all my content for the rest of my career. Several years after I started at Outkick — after going out and selling every ad on the site for several years — I signed on with FoxSports.com and they took over ad sales. I’d still control our content, but they would sell ads. I thought our traffic would surge.

But it didn’t change much at all because Fox didn’t really distribute my content very much.

When I got to FoxSports.com almost all of Fox’s traffic came from another homepage that still does an astonishing amount of traffic, the front page of MSN.com. When Fox’s ad deal with MSN ended and site traffic went nearly to zero, Facebook became the new firehose to drive traffic.  By the time I left FoxSports.com a few months ago 90% of Fox’s traffic online came from Facebook. That’s because Fox Sports has roughly 9 million Facebook fans. How did Fox Sports get that many Facebook fans? Because several years ago they signed an ad partnership with Facebook. As part of that ad partnership Facebook gave Fox advertising dollars — not real money, but basically Facebook credits — that Fox used to buy up fans online. (This is how many companies are growing their “fans” online. They spend millions of dollars on Facebook ads to acquire fans who are then shown their content. Most of it isn’t organic, it’s just a simple market. You pay for fans and eventually you recoup the money you spent for fans via the ads they watch on your content. Again, another shell game.)

Flush with millions of “fans” Fox could then share its online content with these fans and reap the rewards from the clicks from everyone who saw the articles or videos on their timeline. Of course that traffic was and is always subject to Facebook’s algorithm, as soon as Facebook decided to adjust their algorithms or show the Fox Sports posts less frequently the site traffic would collapse. Facebook is providing golden handcuffs to sites. Sure they’re gold, but Facebook has the key to those handcuffs and you can’t go anywhere and Facebook can take them away from you at any point.

And the key detail that all of these inflated page view metrics share is that writers don’t matter very much. It’s as if the NBA’s business model guaranteed that the leagues made money no matter how good the talent of the players were. Would the players make good salaries then? Of course not. They wouldn’t matter at all.

It’s plug and play; if you write about a popular story and it gets featured prominently in the right distribution module, then traffic surges. Yay, look at all “your” readers. The only problem? From a business perspective the quality doesn’t matter very much, the distribution is the business. Most articles that produce millions of pageviews are not very smart, they’re just well distributed to a massive audience. And the vast, vast majority of the time the tidal wave of readers who came to read a popular story don’t return to read that site or that writer again, they just click on the next headline.

Even worse. Most never even know what site they are on.

Why should they?

If everyone aggregates the same content and writes the same stories what differentiates one site from another?

Nothing.

And, similarly, what differentiates one writer from another?

Nothing.

As a result writers don’t matter and, increasingly, sites don’t matter either.

3. Won’t video save the sports businesses?

Only if the ad buying dynamic changes.

Will video ads become like pageviews on the internet, programmatically bought online or will companies try and buy online videos like they do TV shows. The TV model is the one I prefer. You look at the offerings and buy a show, just like you would buy TV or radio. And, importantly, there are only so many spots on every show. So the ad rates can remain decently high because scarcity exists.

The video model I like the best is the one I’m putting out there — I’ll do a live read for your company during my Periscope and Facebook Live that later becomes a podcast. But we only have up to three ads per show to sell. So there’s a limit to how many ads I can sell. I took the live read concept from radio. When I did local radio, our live reads were the most expensive ads we sold and we were only allowed to do 12 per show, one for each commercial break. Why were they the most expensive? Because they were scarce — only 12 of them existed for each show — and they were the only ads we did in the voice of the host. So that’s what I do on my shows now. I don’t want ads to appear on my shows or my websites that I haven’t approved.

My concern is that video ad buys will become just like pageviews on the Internet. Bought in mass bundles with ad buyers having no idea where their ads run and content creators like me having no relationship with advertisers at all. If that happens then we’ll see the same thing we saw with pageviews, a rush to the bottom, where quantity of impressions matters more than quality.

4. What would you do if you were a young writer today or you were a college kid wanting to make a living writing online?

Honestly, I’d find a niche and try and own that niche with original content. Don’t do what everyone else is doing because they will have better distribution for their content than you will and you’ll never make a dent in the world. Also, SPEND LESS TIME TWEETING AND MORE TIME WRITING. This may sound simple, but WRITERS WRITE.

Writing is a form of labor. Walk around and look at all the people doing physical labor all day. Imagine if the plumber who fixes your sink walked around all day making comments about the other people out there fixing sinks instead of fixing sinks himself. You know what he’d be? Unemployed.

Look for a niche that isn’t covered and serve that audience. And this is key — DO IT WITH ORIGINAL CONTENT.

If you can’t do original content in this business, you have no future. The aggregation business is going to die. I’m not sure when, but it will. When everyone is writing the same thing online then everyone is writing nothing.

When I first started writing online in 2004 I wrote about Tennessee football from a humorous perspective. No one was doing this at all, but my ambition wasn’t to be a Tennessee beat writer and just write about the same team over and over again for the rest of my life. If that’s your ambition there’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t mine. I’d get bored really quickly writing and talking about just one team. So I quickly moved to writing about the SEC and after that expanded to all of college football. SEC football is still my base, but now I write and talk about everything — politics, pop culture, legal issues, life, relationships, fatherhood, you name it. My goal every single day is to be SOFA, be smart, original, funny and authentic in everything I write. Those are my buzz words. I don’t always succeed with that in every single article — no one does — but that’s my goal.

I can’t imagine that not working no matter what topic you choose to cover.

Once you find your niche you have to grind for years and be comfortable not making very much money. Most people won’t do this. I didn’t make any money off writing for years. Even after writing online for eight years, when FanHouse fired everyone I was 31 years old, had two kids three and under and a job on radio making $45k a year and my radio contract was set to expire.

That was a holy shit moment for me. I’d published two books, written for large audiences at CBS, Deadspin, and FanHouse and I had built a big following, but I had no money and a pretty small salary for a 31 year old father of two who had left the practice of law to write and talk about sports. I remember heading to a minor league baseball game that spring and sitting watching the Triple A ballplayers and identifying with them completely. They were so close to the big leagues, but what if they didn’t make it?

That’s how I felt.

Was I ever going to make a living writing and talking about sports?

That same spring I went on an advertising call with my local radio station, 104.5 the Zone, and saw an advertiser cut a check for six months of live ads with me on our radio show. The cost for those live ad reads? $50k.

More than I was making in my entire career at that point.

And that was just one advertiser.

So a light bulb went off for me, why couldn’t I have advertisers pay me directly for my content instead of letting companies give me pennies on the dollar of what advertisers were spending to be associated with me? Was that a genius thought or a revolutionary idea? Probably not. But I had the balls to take a big risk and start Outkick in 2011, which has now made me a multi-millionaire.

If FanHouse hadn’t fired me in 2011 I never would have taken a career risk like this. I would have been content to make $80 or $100k a year writing about sports for the rest of my life. In 2011 if someone had offered me $200k a year to write about sports, I would have signed a lifetime contract on the spot and considered myself the luckiest man in the world.

Now I’ve worked my ass off for years, much harder than I ever would have worked if I’d been a writer on a website I didn’t own — the highest vertical I’ve ever hit was after signing my first $30k ad buy contract — but the economic rewards have been substantial and the personal satisfaction is on a different level entirely. I think I have the best job in America. And I really mean that. There’s not a single person I’d change jobs with. (Okay, maybe Donald Trump. I think I’d be a much better president than him.)

Fourteen years after I started writing online I’m 38 years old and I have lived through every corporate fad imaginable. I’ve worked at companies that were going to “own local” and “dominate nationally” and “steal a march on the competitors,” I’ve heard every banal corporate cliche that has ever been uttered. I’ve worked online at CBS, Deadspin, FanHouse, and Fox. I got fired at one, FanHouse, I left another one, Deadspin, after feuding over content with AJ Daulerio, who would later get Gawker bankrupted, I left CBS for more money and I was so certain that I wanted total control of my own content and so burned out by corporate websites that I would only sign a licensing deal with the fourth — Fox Sports.

And now Fox Sports, arguably the biggest sports company in the country if you consider the quality of the games it has — the Super Bowl, the NFC and the NFC Championship, the World Series, NASCAR, the World Cup, the U.S. Open, and the UFC, has decided that it makes no business sense to employ a single person to write words online about sports.

What that should teach you is this — you can’t worry about anyone but yourself. The name on the back of a writer’s jersey is the only one that matters — odds are every company will kick you to the curb at some point no matter how talented you are.

5. What would you do if you were an advertiser today?

I’d buy ads with me on Outkick, of course! I’m claytravis@gmail.com and we’re almost sold out for the fall.

But I’d also identify writers I liked reading and consider directly sponsoring them instead of continuing to pour millions into programmatic ad buys when I have no idea what the impact of those ads is or where those ads are appearing. I’ve found that many ad buyers want to be connected to the people advertising their product. If you like someone, why not reach out to them directly and ask about sponsorships? Trust me, there are so many unemployed writers presently that they’ll be open to just about any idea you have.

Here are a few: why doesn’t every sportswriter in America have a hotel that sponsors him and a car company that he drives to games in? Why doesn’t every sportswriter have a beer he drinks after he files his column and a favorite place to go watch games when he’s not at a game himself? These seem like total no brainers to me. If I were an advertiser trying to reach sports fans I’d want my products embedded with the lifestyles of the people who cover my favorite sports games.

The idea that editorial and business should be separated in modern day sportswriting is insane — every writer should be a walking advertisement. If that makes readers upset, so the fuck what? Readers have made it pretty clear that they won’t pay much for online content. No one else works for free, why should writers? And if that makes the suits on the business side upset, do you know why the suits are upset? BECAUSE IF YOU CAN MAKE A LIVING OFF YOUR OWN WRITING THEIR JOBS BECOME EXPENDABLE INSTEAD OF YOURS.

Get out of here with your editorial independent worries. Do you really think if someone is advertising for a hotel chain that you can’t trust his opinion on the college football playoff or the best team in the NFL? So long as the writer isn’t secretly sponsored by a team or conference — although I do love the idea of teams and conferences secretly signing up top writers to be secret endorsers in polls and articles — I see absolutely nothing wrong with writers being paid directly by advertisers.

My most important advice would be this — take risks and be entrepreneurial.

It’s funny, six years ago when I started Outkick, a bunch of people on Twitter with college football audiences took shots at me. Made fun of the fact that I was out there selling my own advertisements, grinding away on my own business. They said the site would fail, ridiculed me to the high heavens.

Do you know where those guys are today?

I flagged several of their Tweets and saved them back in 2011. Occasionally, I’d pull them up on my computer and look at them if I needed motivation. My mantra was simple, “I’m not going to let them enjoy my failure.”

On the day I signed the papers to buy a second home on the beach, I went back and looked up their Twitter profiles with a beer in my hand. They still had the same small Twitter audiences and none of them had been successful in any kind of sports capacity. They were doing exactly what most people do for most of their lives — they were sitting on the sidelines talking about the people actually in the arena trying to make a living.

Turns out Teddy Roosevelt was right, it truly isn’t the critic who counts, it’s the man in the arena.

Now it’s time for sportswriters to leave the business sidelines and prove that this profession isn’t dead. Head for the arena and find business models that work in sportswriting. Take risks, be bold, don’t be tepid and fearful.

Because even if you get a job at a big company, eventually you know what the result will be — you’re going to get fired.

Be bold, what have you got to lose? It can’t get any worse.

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